‘Undeclared’ mentor was the break skinny kid with a Link Hayes’s Afro needed

This guest opinion column by Dayton area writer Ray Marcano will appear on the Ideas and Voices page Wednesday, Sept 16.

­­Odd as it sounds, to me anyway, some people have tried to use me as an example of why racism is a thing of the past and only exists minimally.

I was raised in a housing project in the Bronx, N.Y., slept in my car for a few days while looking for my first apartment, and had a gun pointed to my head and the trigger pulled (misfired, thankfully). I beat all that.

So if I could make it, why can’t other people who look like me?

That’s a complicated answer. I made it for the same reason someone poor and white made it our of the poorest town in Appalachia.

I caught a break.

In my case, that break was a white man named John Turner.

When I was 21, I applied for a job at the Vinita (Okla.) Daily Journal. I had no idea Vinita existed. I mailed in my resume and called John, the newspaper’s owner, every week for a month and asked the same question ― have you made a hiring decision?

“I'm confident that without him starting me out right, I would not have made it."

- Ray Marcano

The fifth time I called, he said: “Son, if you want this job that bad coming from New York City, it’s yours.”

I don’t know if he expected a skinny kid with a Link Hayes (from the Mod Squad) Afro coming to work for him. I know what I looked like never came up (not from him anyway).

John was something most poor Black kids don’t have --- a mentor who guided them early in life. Studies show kids with mentors miss less school and stay away from drugs. Mentors promote company diversity and increase the numbers of woman and people of color of in management ranks by as much as 24 percent.

He made sure I had a place to live when I came to town. He took me to his country club. He told me why I wasn’t ready for a bigger role at his newspaper and he knew when it was time for me to leave for a bigger job (the Tulsa World). The two years I spent in Vinita allowed me to make mistakes, learn from them, and see a side of life I never knew existed.

John never knew the impact he made.

Until now.

I contacted the editor at the Journal, a man I worked with all those years ago, and he told me how to reach John. I sent him an email and he responded as humble as ever.

He had no idea he was making an impact on one young kid’s life. “I was just trying to improve our newspaper product,” he said to me in an email.

He just saw a kid who wanted to learn. Nothing more or less.

And now. Some 40 years later, he said this about understanding the impact he had on my life:

"I would describe it as a very heartwarming experience—sort of like when a grown child tells his parent for the first time, ‘You know, your advice was correct.’ "

John was, and is, correct. I’m confident that without him starting me out right, I would not have made it.

Ray Marcano, a former Dayton Daily News editor, is a media lecturer at Wright State. The Centerville resident is the former national president of the Society of Professional Journalists, a two-time Pulitzer juror and a Fulbright fellow.

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